According to this article about the recent balloon event, the NSTB will try to interrogate personal electronic devices for any related data. Since some of these mentioned in the briefing do not contain cameras, they may look for accelerometer, gyro, and altimeter data that may have been captured automatically. Chips for these are commonly found in cell phones, tablets and other personal monitoring devices.

Standardization, performance and reliability are only some of the things that a NTSB-recognized voluntary flight recording device would need. Is there any mechanism or regulatory pathway for a standardized yet voluntary flight recorder for balloons, or would it have to be all-or-nothing - required, regulated, and therefore in the end substantially more expensive?

According to this recent WSJ article:

More than two years ago, the NTSB urged tighter regulation of balloons carrying passengers. Without such changes, the safety board said in a April 7, 2014, letter, “the potential for a high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident is of particular concern.”

Currently, passenger balloons do not file flight plans (see this question and associated answers), and while transponders for balloons may exist they are not required, nor is any passive reflection enhancement for radar.

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    $\begingroup$ The "standardized" part is the hard part. Even required CVR's and FDR's are not "standardized" in the terms of data collection. The type of data that is recorded is mandated, but not the method or format. There are products on the market like the Stratus 2s that provide FDR-like logging in a relatively affordable package. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Aug 1 '16 at 3:29
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer do FDR's have standardized performance requirements - resistance to extreme temperatures and pressures, automatic submerged "pings" for example? I didn't specify standardization of design. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 1 '16 at 3:34
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, I can't find an online version of it, but the requirements are called out in FAA TSO-C123a. $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Aug 1 '16 at 3:38
  • $\begingroup$ The other problem is if you don't make it mandatory, nobody is going to use it. Anything related to an aircraft is expensive. In reality, for a balloon all you probably could record is altitude and position. Given todays devices like cell phones, a simple app could be a pretty effective balloon FDR, even recording to the cloud since they are probably within range of cell towers, and its not a lot of data... $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Aug 1 '16 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ @RonBeyer regulations vs guidelines, pressure from customers and insurers may all have a role here as all of them do in other forms of aviation. I'm asking here about a potential process for standardizing aspects of a data logger, which will probably end up being somewhat distinct from a phone. Just one example: an app sits behind a password and so may not be recoverable - if as in this case - it needs to be easily, reliably, and without advance warning interrogated by a third party at a significantly later time. Phones are usually designed to prevent exactly that thing from happening. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Aug 1 '16 at 4:43

As Ron mentioned, if you want to produce a "standardized" voice recorder for balloons you'd be complying with FAA Technical Standard Order (TSO) C123 (currently revision C).

Along the same lines if you wanted to make a "standardized" flight data recorder it would need to comply with TSO C124 (and you would have to figure out what data would be useful to record, and how to get that data to the recorder).

If we're not sticking with an established actual standard then the next best thing are the personal portable electronic devices used in the flight - particularly if the balloon operators are using something like Foreflight, Garmin Pilot, WingX, etc. on a tablet. The NTSB lab has a good amount of experience in recovering useful data from these devices, and they can be almost as useful as an actual flight data recorder. Combined with an onboard camera (say a GoPro) capturing audio/video of the flight you can make an excellent reconstruction of events (and since many balloon operators offer their customers a flight video there's a good chance the cameras are already installed...)

It's worth noting however that none of these devices improves the safety of a given flight: CVRs, FDRs and even cockpit video are forensic tools used after a crash or incident to help us understand what happened, but their value is after an incident, and thus usually after loss of life.

The other NTSB recommendations (including carrying transponders) are aimed at actively improving the safety of individual flights, and may prevent incidents.


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